Captain James Cook's 1779 attempted kidnapping of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the ruling chief of the island of Hawaii and the decision to hold him in exchange for a stolen long boat (lifeboat) was the fatal error of Cook's final voyage, ultimately leading to Cook's death.
Cook's arrival in Hawaii was followed by mass migrations of Europeans and Americans to the islands that ended with the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, the original native monarchy of the islands.
James Cook led three separate voyages to chart unknown areas of the globe for the British Empire. It was on his third and final voyage that he encountered what is known today as the Islands of Hawaii. He first sighted the islands on 18 January 1778. He anchored off the west coast of the island of Kauai near Waimea and met inhabitants to trade and obtain water and food.
On 2 February 1778, Cook continued on to the coast of North America and Alaska searching for a Northwest Passage for approximately nine months. He returned to the island chain to resupply, initially exploring the coasts of Maui and the big island and trading with locals, then making anchor in Kealakekua Bay in January 1779. Cook and his crew were initially welcomed and treated with honour, as his arrival coincided with the Makahiki, a festival celebrating the yearly harvest while worshipping the Hawaiian deity Lono.
However, after he and the crews of both ships, HMS Resolution and HMS Discovery, left the islands, the festival season had ended and the season for battle and war had begun under the worship and rituals for Kūkaʻilimoku, the god of war. Although Cook's sequential visits may have coincided with native traditional seasons, the natives had soured on Cook and his men by the time of Cook's initial departure. John Ledyard was the only American aboard Cook's ship during this time and the only citizen aboard the ship not loyal to the crown. Ledyard was present during the events leading up to and during Cook's death, and wrote a detailed account of the events in his journals.
During Cook's initial visit, he attempted to barter and forcibly stole the wood used to border the natives sacred "Morai" burial ground, used for high ranking individuals and depictions of their gods. Ledyard says in his journals, Cook offered two iron hatchets for the wooden border around the Morai and when the dismayed and insulted chiefs refused, Cook proceeded to give orders to ascend the Morai, break down the fence and load the boats with it. John Ledyard also tells of an episode where Captain Clerke accused a native chieftain friend of stealing the Resolution's jolly boat. The boat was soon found unstolen and the native chief soured from the false accusation. After staying in the bay for 19 days, Cook and his two ships sailed out of the bay.
On 6 February Cook's ships unmoored and left Kealakekua Bay. They were met with an unexpected hard gale which wrenched the mainmast of the Resolution. On 11 February, the Resolution again entered Kealakekua Bay. Ledyard writes on 13 February: